Master artists show that age doesn't lessen creativity
When the “Master Visual Artists: Preserving the Legacy” series began in 1991, it featured the works of 10 artists who were all older than 70 at the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill.
It has since changed in scope, and location, to include artists who are 60 or older, with the common thread that each has had a noticeable career of artistic attainment, is still creating, and has made a measurable impact on the Southwest Pennsylvania community.
Now on display at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, this 2013 iteration (its sixth) is about as broadly based as ever before, with pieces ranging from furniture to film, fiber art to photography and everything in between.
“In designing this table, I tried to make a not-so-rectangular top by placing two walnut slabs with forks in opposite directions, thus making it skewed,” says Mt. Lebanon furniture maker Tadao Arimoto. “I was interested in the shape of space the table and the walls create in a rectangular room. After all, we are surrounded by a lot of rectangular shapes.”
Arimoto, who came to Pittsburgh from Japan in 1976, is well-known throughout the region for his meticulously crafted furniture made from regional woods, especially walnut. His work can be seen at Chatham University, where he designed and built exterior doors and windows, as well as benches and tables in the Sarah Heinz House.
Similar in intent to Arimoto's furniture, Chuck Olson plays off-the-grid in everyday life with his painting “Legions.” An art professor for more than 35 years at St. Francis University in Loretto, the Indiana, Pa.-based artist says, “It struck me this summer that I wanted to create space that I didn't have in my life by creating a kind of rhythm that I find in just about every town in Western Pennsylvania. The rhythm of the vinyl siding that I see on so many of the houses. I wanted to put a kind of dreamlike sense of landscape and form into those shapes and patterns through color mixing.”
Painting again has a presence in the work of Constance Merriman, an art instructor and curator from the town of Greenock, in Elizabeth Township, who has exhibited for more than 25 years.
For the last few years, she has been working on the Community Forest Project, an inquiry into the role and value of greenspace within the city of Pittsburgh.
“While working on this topic, I have done a number of artworks to encourage city residents to become more aware that the city is unique in that it contains extensive and dense green spaces on steep hillsides, parks and abandoned industrial sites,” Merriman says. “These areas provide habitat for a diverse population of wild creatures who live parallel to the city's human inhabitants. This idea is exciting to me. I had been thinking about creating art works that convey that fact to Pittsburghers.”
Her piece “Heron Over the Smithfield Street Bridge” depicts a dynamic bird flying over the city's center.
“It carries nesting material in its beak, conveying the fact that it lives and raises its young in the city, just as people do, and that the environment is healthy enough to support all of us,” Merriman says.
Sculptor David Lewis of Homestead (now in his 90s, the most senior exhibitor) displays several steel sculptures, which, says Lewis, “are really extensions of my paintings which, in turn, are related to my ‘Six Stories.' ”
The book, which was published last year by the National Folk Art Foundation ($14.95), features a selection of Lewis' favorite stories related to his childhood in South Africa and its world of animals, birds and folk tales.
“What I love about working in steel are the interplays of planes and curves in light and shadow and the energies of gesture into space,” Lewis says. “In our urban world, we create streets and buildings, construction sites and trash piles; and the birds and lizards, the groundhogs and beetles, take to all this stuff as if it's just part of nature, and they busily get on with their energetic lives. My sculptures are about that, too.”
Fabric artist Risë Nagin, who maintains a studio in Etna, says her intention with her double-sided, accordion-fold collages on display was to focus on the interplay of light and shadow as direct experience.
“I wanted the viewer to walk around the work, to see what is slightly hidden and revealed, as one does when walking in the woods and seeing the play of light through leaves,” she says.
In this way, they offer a nice complement to Lewis' pieces.
Then there is the work of Paul Zelevansky of Point Breeze, whose video “Songs of Love and Rage” are sure to grab the attention of even the most passive visitor, if only because it predominantly features him singing popular songs in Groucho Marx nose and glasses.
“The Groucho Marx nose and glasses is a mask, which allows me to sing into my computer screen with a little less self-consciousness,” he says, “but it also provides an edge of uncertainty and humor, a counterpoint to the earnestness of the singing.”
Once a member of a team that created some of the first digital interactive museum exhibitions in the country, Zelevansky has produced visual novels, sculpture, installation, critical writing, graphic design and performance pieces over the years, and more recently began to focus on video and animation.
Calling his piece a “video collage,” in it he sings a mash-up duet with the musical comedy star Bernadette Peters. “She is performing Rogers and Hammerstein's ‘It Might as Well Be Spring,' while I sing Irving Berlin's ‘I Wonder Why,' ” he says.
Zelevansky says the fact that he is wearing headphones suggests that he can hear her and that the two are in some way recording together.
“Sitting behind a vase with cut flowers represents the presence of nature in the recording studio, and is one of many possible takes on the lyrics ‘Oh why should I have spring fever, when it isn't even spring,' ” Zelevansky says. “The lyric ‘I hear singing and there's no one there' (from ‘I Wonder Why') also points to the projection of real-time reality on what is a fiction.”
The remaining artists whose works are on display are just as compelling. Short videos documenting all the artists' life and work will be screened from 6 to 8 p.m. Sept. 26 at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts. The videos, along with biographies of the artists, will be archived at the Senator John Heinz History Center.
Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.